News & Politics

Will This Be a Bad Winter for Washington?

The National Weather Service notes it’s been four years since a major snowfall.

Anyone here in winter 2010 will recall the intensity of Snowmageddon. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

It’s mid-November, and the forecast for the week is relatively mild—in the 50s and 60s. To listen to the National Weather Service, the best advice is to enjoy the mildness while it lasts. “Next week is supposed to be very cold,” says Christopher Strong, a meteorologist at NWS regional headquarters in Sterling, Virginia. In a few days the NWS will release the seasonal forecast for the nation, but on Monday Strong provided an early look at the expected Washington winter. There’s little science to support the argument that we’re due for a big winter, but, he says, “it’s been four winters since we’ve had a significant snow season.”

Anyone who was here can recall the winter of 2010, when the Washington metro area experienced the back-to-back blizzards known as Snowmageddon, which shut down the city almost completely. The measure at Dulles Airport was 75 inches between the two storms. That was the last “El Niño winter” we had, according to Strong.

El Niño and La Niña are the cycles in the “global atmosphere” that are easiest to forecast, he says, because they “change by the season and months.” El Niño creates elevated heat and moisture in the tropical Pacific, and the “flipside,” La Niña, “does not put as much heat in the atmosphere,” according to Strong. Washington’s biggest snowstorms happen when moisture comes up from the Gulf (El Niño) and meets with freezing temperatures coming down from Canada known as an Alberta Clipper. “What we have this year is neutral—between one and the other—and it’s expected to continue through the winter,” Strong says.

Strong expects a “typical” winter for Washington, which he described as “not exceptionally cold or exceptionally warm” and with inches of snow “in the high single digits or teens, spread over a few events, with the coldest and snowiest months being January and February.” But he allows that surprises are always possible. “The big storm can happen in any winter. Even if you have an uneventful winter as a whole you can have the right conditions for a storm to come together,” he says. A crippling snowstorm for Washington does not have to be a blizzard. Strong recalled “Commutegeddon” of January 2011. That snowstorm was technically not a blizzard, but its intensity was unexpected, and it hit during rush hour, creating a traffic nightmare.

Even with all the technology at hand for meteorologists, “two weeks out is the best you can forecast,” says Strong, who ended our conversation with an analysis of this week and next. “We have a warm day today, and then a cooldown, and a rebound and then we’ll be in a pretty cold pattern for the first part of next week.”